Wild Horses and Other Teachers

by Tommy Housworth

Our minds can sometimes seem like wild horses but even when they aren’t charging around, mindfulness takes work. For many of us, maintaining intentional awareness of the present moment is, in fact, our greatest challenge. Thankfully, there are teachers who encourage us when we stumble or get discouraged. Now and then, we encounter a teacher who guides us not by wisdom but by the rawness of their own struggles. Sometimes, instead of showing up in a tailored suit or saffron robes, they’re wearing nothing but their underwear. Let me explain.

A few years ago, on a silent meditation retreat, I met such a teacher. During the weekend event, 150 of us were invited to refrain from speaking for two and a half days. For those who don’t believe they can be quiet for 60+ hours, it’s easier than one would imagine. The silence, in fact, becomes a balm you want to protect.

One young man, though, kept pulling me out of my attempts to be present. In a retreat filled with people taking mindful steps, emanating peace, and seeking a certain kind of equanimity, this kid was a cyclonic force, a wild stallion loose in a glass factory.

Our first introduction occurred when I went to the shower at 4:40 A.M., preparing for 5:30 A.M. meditation. He charged into the bathroom in nothing but his underwear. Slamming his hand against the wall to hold himself up, he let out a bellowing sigh as he lightened his bladder. He then left the bathroom without washing his hands.

Fast-forward to mealtime, an opportunity to experience eating as a mindful, attentive experience, wherein one slowly savors the texture, taste, and nourishment the food offers. Simple bowls of soup, noodles, tofu, and vegetables become a reminder that many hands and hearts went into the food that we are enjoying. Gratitude abounds as we take upward of an hour or more to enjoy food prepared with love and attention.

Unfortunately, the cyclone didn’t get the memo. He churned through mealtime like a helicopter blade, unable to pause even when the occasional mindfulness bell rang, designating an opportunity to pause and bring our wandering minds back to the present moment. As those around him chewed slowly and thoughtfully, he fashioned his chopsticks into shovels.
I found this young man became a sort of obsession for me. “Why was he even here?” “He’s obviously NOT engaged in what we’re all trying to do here,” said Judge Thomas Housworth of the township of Judgyville (Population: one). I fixated on his behavior and slipped into bemused stricture, almost wishing for him to go against the grain so I could, in thinking him a thoughtless clod, feel better about my own mediocre mindfulness.

And so it went for another day or so, him unable to sit still, and me vacillating between curiosity and critique. Then, one of the teachers announced at breakfast that, later in the day, they would be granting short interviews to anyone who wanted to ask questions or seek advice. Silence would be broken for this opportunity should anyone care to request an audience with one of the mindfulness teachers. They had pieces of paper and pencils where you could jot down your name and your question or concern. If you wished to sign up, simply fill out a piece of paper and drop it in the neighboring basket.

Enjoying the silence, I didn’t see a reason to deviate from the day’s routine. Yet, I am constantly questioning, and maybe a new perspective on my neurosis would be beneficial. As I walked to the basket to write my name down, the young man darted in front of me. He hurriedly wrote on the paper and dropped it in the bell. Now, let he who has never snooped cast the first stone…

I walked up to the bell, started to fill out my paper, and leaned in to peek at what he had scribbled. I told myself I just wanted to know his name. I told myself it was harmless curiosity. I told myself it was okay, even though it wasn’t. My heart crumbled as I read his comments…

“I can’t seem to stay in the present moment. It’s so hard for me, and I’m really trying. Can you help me?”

My throne of superiority crumbled. Turns out what he was going through was exactly what I was going through, what likely everyone at the retreat was going through. Maybe you’re going through it as well. We’re all running from the here and now; he just happened to be doing it in his underwear at 4:40 AM or with noisy silverware in a quiet dining hall. Do I mask my neuroses better than he? Sure, I’ve had twice as many years of practice at it. Am I any less a twitchy tornado than he? No way. He’s me. I’m him. But that a young man in his twenties, restless in his own skin, had the mindfulness to recognize this and show up at a place where he could confront that confusion head-on? I suddenly realized he wasn’t a kid with a lot to learn. He was my teacher.

Our teachers appear in the most unlikely of circumstances, in the most unfashionable forms. They are transient beggars and obstinate toddlers, unsmiling strangers and difficult coworkers, vulgar poets, and, yes, unkind elected officials.

While I do not subscribe to the notion that everything happens for a reason, I try to remind myself that we can find something in any circumstance that offers an opportunity to soften, to open up, to welcome discomfort so we can work with it and find the fearlessness we were born to claim. We can also take those opportunities to harden, close off, and cast aspersions. The choice is ours. It’s always, ultimately, ours.

Many days, it’s hard to make the brave and compassionate choice. But on days that I am mindful enough to remember my young teacher, I open up to the possibilities that I can bend a little closer to the light, that I can choose to apply authentic effort in a world that, more than ever, cries out for people to keep trying. Wild horses, we’ll ride them someday.…